Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The hero's journey is about as clear here as it is in any movie ever made, right down to the possibility that it could all be a dream. Like any good hero's journey, this one starts in a very mundane world. In fact, that's kind of the point. This world is not just mundane, it's oppressively mundane, complete with plastic on the furniture and inane yammerings about kitchen appliances on some game show. Something needs to bust out of someone's closet real quick.
Call to Adventure
Terry Gilliam is a lot of things, but subtle isn't one of them. The call to adventure literally comes galloping out of the bedroom closest, first in the form of a knight on horseback, and then in the form of six wee men who have stolen God's "how to travel through time" map. They promptly start pushing against the bedroom wall, which conveniently gives way to gradually reveal a corridor moving off into the distance and, yeah, we've got ourselves a call to adventure here.
Refusal of the Call
Are you kidding? Have you seen this kid's parents? There's no refusal of the call here. Push faster, dwarves.
Meeting the Mentor
The mentor seems to be Randall, the self-appointed leader of the dwarves, who allows Kevin to come with them on their robberies—though he gives lousy advice.
Crossing the Threshold
The threshold is crossed pretty literally, right after the call to adventure. The dwarves keep pushing at that wall until it opens up into a vast, empty space, ultimately leading to the first of many very interesting places and times.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
For the dwarves, stealing as much as they can from history's most noted figures is enough for them...until they hear about the Most Fabulous Object in the World, which becomes the object of their new quest.
You notice we said "dwarves" here, and not Kevin, who is the hero of the journey. Being wise beyond his years, Kevin knows that the journey is the important thing, not the destination. So he takes care to enjoy himself, learn, and grow, passing a number of tests thrown at him almost by default.
Approach to the Innermost Cave
The innermost cave is the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where Evil awaits to nab that map. We're pretty sure the dwarves have failed their ultimate test just by showing up here. We'll see if Kevin can pull them out of the fire.
The ordeal in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness is a pretty tall order. First, the dwarves have to break out of the cage they've been stuck in. Then, Kevin has to try to steal the map while the dwarves go for reinforcements. Then, said reinforcements have to try to take down Evil before the Supreme Being has finally seen enough and orders everyone out of the pool.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Has Kevin earned a reward? We'd say he has. Being a little kid, Kevin does a sight better than most grownups would in the same situation.
The Road Back
Luckily, God has a magical shortcut back to where Kevin started, along with a convenient way of making him wonder if it was all a dream. The kid has been through a lot—there's no need to make him walk home.
Up Kevin comes, pulled out of the house by a suspiciously familiar fireman and finding himself returned to the spot where he started. That's not necessarily a benefit, considering the kid's parents, but, hey, how many other kids can say they traveled through time?
Return With the Elixir
The elixir is a bit tricky here since it involves a piece of pure Evil in a toaster. It's even more problematic because it turns Kevin's parents into smoking little holes on their lawn, which would normally be considered a very bad thing, indeed. But his parents are such self-absorbed swine that their fate has a certain poetic justice to it. Plus, we've seen that Kevin is pretty darn good at taking care of himself. So maybe the elixir has freed him from the shackles of some less-than-great parents—an unorthodox reward at best, but fitting considering that this movie is a long way from business as usual.